Up Ghost river is a harrowing, yet hopeful, memoir of a strong man haunted by the shadows of the notorious St. Anne’s Residential School. Edmund Metatawabin was enrolled in this school in the early 1950s at the age of seven. St. Anne’s is now known as one of the worst residential schools and Metatawabin shared his experience as a student which led to post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism as he attempted to deal with the abuse he suffered. This memoir has been the January monthly read for the Canadian Content group (on Goodreads) and is one of the books highlighted on the CBC’s 100 True Stories that Make You Proud to Be Canadian list.
The first part of the memoir details the dreadful experience at the school – being fondled during a “medical exam” on admission, having his hair shaved, clothes taken away and being forced to line up according to size. Each child was assigned a number instead of using his or her name. When asking for additional food, the small boy was whipped. Ed would have reprieves over the holidays and during the summer but went back year after year, never sharing with his family the horrors of the residential school.
It was hard to read the passages about being punished in an electric chair and being forced to eat porridge covered in his own vomit, days later. It is difficult to believe that any humans could treat children this way let alone members of the church who were meant to share the values of the religion they represented. The novel focused on the abuse – both physical and sexual – at the hands of the adults but avoided the abuse at the hands of older boys who themselves had been exposed to abuse.
While at residential school, Metatawabin describes being groomed by a local Hudson Bay Store man who treated him kindly. He offered him a job in Montreal, taking him with him, offering a place to stay while he shameless and repeatedly raped him. Metatawabin was ashamed and never shared this with his family until years later when his alcoholic self-abuse led him to treatment. He began to learn indigenous traditions which helped him to heal and take a new path.
Although the abuse is horrible to read, the book also offers hope and shows the resilience and strength of Edmund Metatawabin. He married and had his own children and went back to school. He is a successful businessman, an author, an educator, was the chief in Fort Albany First Nation and as an activist has fought to have St. Anne’s records released to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Although this is a painful story. It is important to understand the dreadful history of residential schools and see that Metatawabin is a survivor. He ends the book with a chapter on Getting Involved including suggestions like supporting indigenous art, targeting youth suicide and supporting education along with the abolishment of the Indian Act. It is certainly an important book to share and is a great book suggestion for book clubs.